Copyright, Critical Editions, and Ancient Texts

I don’t really like Copyright. No, let me rephrase it. I think copyright is often immoral, is rarely in authors’ interests, and is primarily used to protect vested interests, not creators’ rights or interests. There are multifaceted and complex reasons for this, which I do not intend to make the main aim of my post today.

Instead I want to talk about ancient texts and copyright. Here I think the moral issue is much, much clearer. Wherever you fall on contemporary copyrights, it simply cannot be disputed that it is of no value to Socrates, Cicero, or the mysterious author of Hebrews, to assert ‘copyright’ over their works. They are gone, done and dusted, and their works rightly belong in the public domain.

(Translations are another separate issue, I’ll leave them aside.)

It’s critical editions that are the sticking point. If I read 5 manuscripts and then decide which variants to include in an edition, the current default hypothesis is that I have somehow acquired a copyright over this work. This is the practice of various monopolising bodies, whom you know well, and the overpriced and underutilised editions of ancient works they release. This is, in my view, a fairly insidious example of ‘enclosing’ the public domain. Of taking what belongs to all, and putting a fence around it and re-privatising it.

I also suspect that if put to the test, it might well fail in court. Because while there is certainly work in assembling a critical edition, and more than that, there is skilled and detailed work, there is no creative work. Nothing is added to the work, nothing remixed, nothing generated. There is no new work done. Under many countries’ copyright regimes this does not pass the standard tests for acquiring a copyright to a work. It’s about on the same level as organising word lists or printing phone books. Sheer volume of labour does not copyright make.

There is another devious way that the monopolies lock things up. Not under copyright, but under ‘terms of service’. Those malicious legalesque babellings that no-one reads because to do so would literally consume our lives in minutiae that no one genuinely has time for. Many of these could be found non-binding as well, especially those that require no ‘active’ assent beyond, say, using a website. Passive assent generally does not stand up well under legal scrutiny either.

Unfortunately the reality of our copyright tyrannies is such that few can afford to challenge such monopolies. So, like many other things in academia, closed shops and inaccessibility continues unabated. And, to be fair, I will not be the one to challenge this any time soon. I, also, have too much to lose.


Perhaps, though, there might be another way? I think there is. And that is simply to get as many public domain editions accessible as possible. To skirt and subvert these attempts to lock up ancient texts. There is, as well, the movement away from critical editions, to single manuscript editions, in some areas. These, definitively, cannot be locked up under copyright.

We live in the age of copying. The whole internet is one giant copying machine that excels at one purpose: duplication. Let’s duplicate texts so that there are so many that no one ever needs to say, “Gee, if only I could enter that locked enclosure and read that highly priced text”. Let’s make knowledge free.

4 responses

  1. As you know I deal with ancient and medieval Bible commentaries and I am not a favorite of scholars who know me because I have the ability and desire to cut through all the red tape and get works out there without waiting around for all the “smart” people to go through all their board members and jump all the hoops to do something that could be done in a fraction of the time that they are able to do. I recently had a publisher from a big publishing company try to discourage me from doing a translation that they had planned on starting about 10 years from now once they eventually get their critical text finished. I can really see me telling my translator to quit translating now that she is halfway finished so that the PHD’s can work on it in the next decade.

    • We all appreciate scholars who do careful, meticulous editions. But when those editions take umpteen years, come out in $200+ editions, and are bundled with rights that are often prohibitive, this isn’t serving the scholarly community, it’s serving a business model that largely enriches publishers, not libraries, universities, or scholars. Particularly when some projects are already funded by grants, etc., but then charge exorbitantly for the products of those publicly funded works, this seems egregious.

      Do we lose something by faster, cheaper, free-er editions? Yes, I think so. But the price is short-time. We get a product that sometimes is a little less edited, revised, ‘perfect’. But those faults can be remedied through scholarly conversation, a conversation made possible by the very fact that such editions exist. 10 years would be plenty of time for a published, available edition of something to go through several revisions, improve in quality, while at the same time simply being accessible!

  2. Amen! Though I’d push back a bit on your description of the editor’s task. Editing is not a simple mechanical task. Reading manuscripts is difficult, creating stemmata is difficult, adding punctuation and other reader friendly paraphernalia (apparatús critici, apparatús fontium, etc.) is difficult, as is deciding when to emend the text (emendations are perhaps the best instance of the “creative” work of the editor). All of that is of scientific value (and certainly requires the artem philologicam!). I think that work, at least in theory, deserves some sort of compensation (whether monetary, career, recognition, or something else).

    That said, I definitely agree about the publishing system: to a large extent it’s not longer serving the interests of the academy or the wider public. Scientific work, especially work carried out with public funds, should be published as inexpensively as possible as widely as possible. The more we move toward open access the better: I simply don’t want to minimize the role of the editor in order to free our texts, or at least minimize him as little as possible ;-).

    • Thanks for the push-back!

      I’m certainly not wanting to say either that editorial work is not difficult, laborious, requiring higher-order thinking, or anything like that. However, at it’s best it should not aim to be ‘creative’ in the sense that editors are trying to give us a best-reasonable reconstruction of the original text. Sometimes, for other reasons, they are trying to reconstruct a text at a certain stage of transmission. But at no stage are they trying to add their own ‘creation’ and create a new text.

      Secondly, I do certainly agree that this kind of work deserves compensation! I am all in favour of compensating people for their work. This definitely includes editors of critical editions. My main beefs are with how this is done. I think the current system of copyright + extremely expensive books does not serve that purpose well.